Milwaukee Arrests Rarely Involve Force, But Incidents Are Concentrated in Some Districts

Last week, the Milwaukee Fire and Police Commission released its annual report on police uses of force for 2013.  The report counts 895 incidents in 2013, employing a very broad definition of “use of force” that does not require either an injury or the use of a weapon.  To put that number into perspective, the Milwaukee Police Department made more than 30,000 arrests in 2013.  For each arrest in which force was used, there were about thirty-six arrests in which force was not used.

In nearly three-quarters of the use-of-force-incidents, no weapon was used by the police officer.  In the remaining incidents, the most commonly used weapons were Tasers and pepper spray.  Firearms were used on forty occasions, most commonly on dogs.  Firearms were used against human subjects in fourteen incidents; eleven of the subjects were hit.

Data from previous years indicate that Taser and pepper spray use is in sharp decline.  

However, there has been much more consistency in the number of incidents involving firearms used against humans.

In nearly two-thirds of all use-of-force incidents, the subject was injured, including four fatal injuries.

All uses of force are unfortunate, but many or most may be justifiable.  Police records indicate that the subject was armed in thirteen percent of the incidents, and resisted arrest in eighty-six percent.  To be sure, resistance might or might not justify a use of force, depending on the specific circumstances of the case and the actual degree of force used.  The Fire and Police Commission report does not attempt to determine which uses of force were justifiable and which were not.

One troubling aspect of the report is that the arrest/force ratio varies considerably by police district.  Consistent with data from earlier years, uses of force were most common in District 7, in the city’s northwest.  In District 7, there were only about twenty-six arrests per use of force.  On the other end of the spectrum, there were nearly fifty arrests per use of force in District 4, which is adjacent to 7 and has similar racial demographics.  These patterns raise questions about whether all of the uses of force in 7 really are necessary, but it is hard to reach any definite conclusions based on the available data.

Also troubling is the fact that more than three-quarters of the uses of force involved black subjects.  On the other hand, this proportion seems roughly in line with the racial disparities in arrests: in 2012, more than three-quarters of MPD arrests involved blacks.  More research seems warranted to help determine what causes these racially skewed patterns.

The FPC report was prepared by Dr. Steven Brandl of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.  Earlier use of force reports are available here.  Full disclosure: I am a member of the Milwaukee Fire and Police Commission, but had no involvement in the preparation of this report.